The complex imagery of Patrick Nagatani

“Trinity Site, Jornada Del Muerto, New Mexico” from the series “Nuclear Enchantment” by Patrick Nagatani, 1989, silver-dyed bleach print.

Both director and historian, Patrick Nagatani was a sorcerer of stories.

The Albuquerque-based photographer and teacher conjured universes on canvas, collaging photography, masking tape and magazine clippings with a focus on vibrant color and the irony of truth hidden in plain sight.

A pioneer in “directed photography,” the late photographer is the subject of “Invented Realities,” a survey exhibition of 38 images at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Nagatani’s images combine his background as a Hollywood set model maker (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Blade Runner”), his ethnic heritage (he was born in Chicago just days after the atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima), his passion for healing and the environment.

“Radioactive Reds” (1986) by Patrick Nagatani.

Nagatani created complex tableaus and detailed models for the camera. The results spilled in a cascade of collaged contradictions: Hopi dancers next to missiles, military sites paired with monuments. It was in New Mexico that he produced some of his best-known series, including large-scale Polaroids and “Nuclear Enchantment,” about the development of atomic weapons and their environmental consequences.

Photography curator Kate Ware has organized the exhibit to emphasize Nagatani as a storyteller through several series. He didn’t just take pictures; he constructed them for his viewers to decode.

Nagatani’s early Los Angeles collaborations with the painter Andrée Tracey involved the creation of elaborate scenes with a 20- by 24-inch Polaroid camera.

“Radioactive Reds” (1986) reveals his choice of the color as a symbol of nuclear weapons. The artist’s humor is also intact: a pair of McDonald’s arches and a Buddhist temple bookend the frightened faces while the sky rains hamburgers in a confrontation of his bicultural heritage.

Both of Nagtani’s parents and his grandfather were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps during World War II. That history produced a rare series of representational photographs. He traveled across the U.S., from California to Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado and Arkansas documenting the camps or what was left of them. Most of them were unmarked.

“Manzanar, Japanese American Concentration Camp, California” (1994) by Patrick Nagatani, chromogenic print.

“Some of them were in the middle of somebody’s fields,” Ware said. “It’s almost stranger than reality; it didn’t need much help. I think it was a very personal series.”

Nagatani came to teach at the University of New Mexico in 1987, where he dove into his “Nuclear Enchantment” series. In a precursor to Instagram and 21st-century narcissism, “Trinity Site, Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico” (1989) shows tourists aiming cameras at the marker while a papier-mâché plane delivering the bomb hovers overhead.

“First, there’s nothing there,” Ware said. “The narratives are really complex. He puts them in front of us for us to think about and contemplate.”

Later, Nagatani’s Buddhist roots saturated his compositions. He began using masking tape to veil the images. A self-described, self-invented “tape-ist,” he added layers of opaqueness to Buddhist goddesses.

“He talked about how obsessive and calming these taped works were,” Ware said.

He left key areas untaped, including the goddess’ hand.

“It calls attention to the hand and the idea of truth and a blessing,” Ware said.

Nagatani died after a long battle with colon cancer last November.

“His contribution was in being an early adapter of color work in this directorial style,” Ware said. “And he was very important as a teacher.”

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